Couples living apart together and why it works
Couples living apart together and why it works


Lindsey, 27, considers herself a social person—when she’s on her phone. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, in a two-bedroom apartment in a sleepy complex popular with retirees and young professionals. There’s a community pool, an adjacent park, and narrow, sloping streets ringed by oak trees and ample parking. After her roommate moved out, she made the large master suite her bedroom and turned the second bedroom into an office/home gym/storage space. The living room is her least-used space; the couch is a hand-me-down from the frat house of a local college, and the TV is mostly for watching sports or noteworthy series, usually on the rare occasion she invites someone over. She spends most of her time in the kitchen or bedroom.

”I work at a job that requires all-day chatter, and coming home to my solitude is necessary,” Lindsey says, noting that her workplace has an open floorplan, and conversation between employees is so frequent the company has instituted quiet hours. On an average weekday, she returns home from the gym and cooks some variation of a chicken dish for herself while texting her boyfriend, who lives in another city, and managing group chats with friends that toggle between topics like The Bachelor and impeachment. She eats on her couch while scrolling through TikTok or Twitter while The Great British Bake Off plays in the background.

”I don’t usually speak out loud or in real life with anyone until weekends,” she says. “I don’t find it lonely. I come from a big family, and this is the first time I’ve ever lived alone or had a space to myself.”

The moment she fully reckoned with silence was after she got her driver’s license and found herself behind the wheel on her own for the first time.

“I realized there was no one to talk to but myself, and I think that was the first time I remember existing in a space fully alone,” she says. “It was super weird. But I liked it, and living alone is like that. I don’t have anyone in my space unless I want them there or unless they’re welcome. It’s just different, in a good way.”

Lindsey’s Monday to Friday evenings are spent in a socialized cocoon of her own design; she’s filtering in the entertainment and conversation she wants to feel engaged, while staying in her own home. As someone who lives alone, her space is designed to offer the most comfort to her and only her, and hosting is an afterthought—weekends are for nights out with friends. The concept of this type of cultivated cocoon has been around for almost three decades, but it’s increasingly focused on the individual, especially when technology means there’s no need to interact with actual humans to obtain food, entertainment, or friendship.

In the early ’80s, futurist and marketing consultant Faith Popcorn began to notice people were sleeping through their disco naps, or the moments of shut-eye they grabbed between finishing up a workday and hitting the town. They were leaving the office on Friday afternoon, getting home, and not coming back out. This wasn’t limited to one demographic. More people were staying in, surrounding themselves with creature comforts, and shunning public spaces. Popcorn’s marketing consultant firm, BrainReserve, described this “need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world” as “cocooning.”

They “named it and framed it” in 1981, Popcorn says, and in her 1991 book, The Popcorn Report, she broke down the trend into three initial sections: armored cocooning, or living in gated communities and having substantial home security; wandering cocooning, or seeking alone time in individual vehicles and solo transportation, just as Lindsey did; and socialized cocooning, or retreating to a private sphere while still interacting with family and friends.

After 9/11, Americans became warier of public spaces, and socialized cocooning became more popular, with people investing money in home theaters, including bulky, multi-shelf entertainment centers. Home kitchens became larger.

“Public life came to be seen as something to be tolerated and survived rather than as an essential source of pleasure and entertainment,” wrote Karen Christensen in 2003’s Encyclopedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World, Volume 1. The outside world was “messy and unpredictable.” The living room couch was a haven with Blockbuster rentals, microwave popcorn, and chosen companions.

“Cocooning is about insulation and avoidance, peace and protection, coziness and control—a sort of hyper-nesting,” Popcorn wrote in The Popcorn Report. People were “dreaming about the joys of turning in,” she says, and cocooning was “a state of mind—preservation.”

“I thought it would be a great cozy space—a space you could work in, play in,” she says. “But I didn’t know how quickly the seams of the cocoon would close.” Where “socialized cocooning” used to refer to the presence of other people in one’s home, now most socialization in the cocoon is virtual, especially for those who live alone.

I really value having a sanctuary to come home to and disconnect from everything else in a space that is completely mine.

In 2017, Pew Research Center analysis of the census found that 42 percent of Americans lived alone and 61 percent of Americans under the age of 35 lived alone (up from 39 percent and 56 percent in 2007). In 2019, there were an estimated 36.48 million single-person households, an increase of nearly 10 million from 1999. A January 2018 study from the University of Texas examined the change in time Americans spent at home between 2003 and 2012, and found that it amounted to a 14-day increase per year for Americans ages 18-24, or 70 percent more of an increase than the rest of the population. Another survey found that 28 percent of millennials ages 24 to 31 prefer drinking at home to going out, because the latter takes too much effort, while only 15 percent of baby boomers agree. Millennials are more likely to cook at home than Gen Xers or baby boomers, according to the Spoon, and they’re also more likely to order delivery.

Once millennials are home from work, they’re not likely to go back out—and they’re less likely to invite people in. Today’s socialized cocooning looks different than it did in the aughts, and it’s more common, even if people don’t realize they’re partaking. It’s FaceTiming a friend instead of inviting someone over, or watching a YouTube video while eating alone on the couch. If you’re living alone in 2019, it’s almost instinctive to find yourself in some type of socialized cocoon, and that’s changing how solo dwellers use their living spaces.

The idea of making a home into a place for others, as opposed to one’s self, is falling out of style.

One-bedroom apartments are increasingly pricey everywhere in the U.S. (the average monthly rents for one-bedrooms in San Francisco; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Boise, Idaho, are roughly $3,500, $1,200, and $1,100, which marks percentage increases of 58, 63, and 45 between 2011 and 2019). But those who live alone often prize doing so despite the cost, and see their homes as spaces for the individual first, and guests second.

Dustin McManus has lived alone for a year and a half in a studio in Oakland, California. This is his first solo apartment, and he savors his space after eight-plus hours in a bullpen-style office.

“At the end of the day, when I want to be alone or away from people, I want to have my own space,” he says. “I really value having a sanctuary to come home to and disconnect from everything else in a space that is completely mine.”

Vanessa da Costa lives alone in Pretoria, South Africa. Her living room is the most-used space—but only because she uses it for her side hustle, a remote career-development platform. It took her a year and a half to have a housewarming party, she says, which reflects her reluctance to host more than one guest at a time.

“Home is a place to be alone for me,” she says. Socialization for many is more frequent in designated public spaces like bars, restaurants, and gyms, and her house is for reprieve or work.

Once millennials are home from work, they’re not likely to go back out—and they’re less likely to invite people in.

Casey Hardin, a North Carolina-based interior designer for Decorist, sees more than a dozen clients per month from around the country. Most of her clients are couples or small families, but when she works with individuals, the most common priority is “function and form.”

“When I’m designing for someone living alone, it’s almost always focused on the living space and the bedroom,” she says. “There’s not a lot of focus on the kitchen and the dining room. It can go both ways, and a lot of people do want to be set up to entertain, but the main focus is on a living space for themselves.”

Traditional dining room tables or sideboards and buffets are often replaced by barstools and a bar cart, Hardin says. Fewer people are eating at kitchen tables, instead opting for non-traditional spots (33 percent on the couch and 17 percent in the bedroom, according to a survey), and dining room furniture sales are down, as is interest in the space (nearly a third of consumers say the dining room is the first room they could do without).

In the living room, Hardin finds sectionals are more popular than standard sofas, and clients are looking for convertible coffee tables, which work as dinner tables, workspaces, and storage.

Consumers are also looking for movable accent seating, Hardin says, or pieces that can be used to entertain and serve a purpose, like ottomans or poufs that stow items and double as extra seating.

The bedroom is often a priority, and a typical cotton comforter set from Target or Bed Bath & Beyond will no longer suffice. The luxury bedroom industry is burgeoning, beginning with the mattress. McKinsey predictions in 2018 put the sleep industry at between $30 billion and $40 billion annually; the mattress industry makes up roughly half of that figure, including the ubiquitous Casper or mattresses based on your so-called sleep DNA.

Enter the sheets. Popular picks include Brooklinen, Parachute, or Ettitude, which range from $85 for a single fitted sheet to $427.50 for a heathered cashmere bundle and comprise fabrics such as sateen, percale, and bamboo lyocell.

These products tend to garner the most interest from millennial consumers in one- or two-person living situations; Nearly 50 percent of Ettitude’s customers, for example, fall in the 25-to-44 age range. More than half of Ettitude customers are single, and are living as one adult in a household (followed closely by households with two adults).

Parachute’s core customer base is approximately 30 to 45 years old and “moving through different milestones in their lives and have arrived at a place where they’re investing more in their homes,” according to the company. Brooklinen’s customers are concentrated in the 26-to-45 age range, 30 percent live alone, and 20 percent are in a two-person household.

Top-end bedding adds an extra layer of luxury to one’s cocoon, and fits in with the growing emphasis on mental and physical health. Sleep is no longer a given human function, but a practice to be fine-tuned and outfitted with next-level amenities. For many, the bedroom is not only the most personal part of an apartment, but now the most important.

“With my design clients I definitely see a trend toward wellness”—physical, emotional, and social—“as well as the desire to connect with and use socially and environmentally focused brands,” says Jess Blumberg, from Dale Blumberg Interiors.

“Consumers are drawn to luxury bedding companies … the combination of luxuriousness, convenience, sustainability, and the contribution to a greater sense of well-being gives our clients comfort in more ways than one.”

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When I spoke to Popcorn, I shared my vision of a socialized cocoon in 2020: a millennial wrapped in luxury sheets on a delivery memory-foam mattress, flipping between social media and group texts while a streaming service plays on a cable-less television. There’s an empty delivery box on a coffee table that is also a footrest, desk, and dinner table. If there’s space for a kitchen table, it’s mostly used for work, which never really stops. This individual may not have spoken to anyone but coworkers today, but they’re not necessarily alone: There is The Office theme song marking the passing of 22 minutes; iMessages from family; tentative happy-hour plans with equally busy friends; and a plethora of apps to keep them entertained, fed, connected, informed, and comforted. They may be the only human in their home, but they could be connected enough to stave off social isolation, a trend that’s now a public health crisis.

Popcorn, who has made her career by predicting future trends, pointed out that the living room will become more like a “life space” designed to fit its dweller. She predicts a rise in flexible furniture that involves built-in seating and beds that disappear into the floor or walls and are prebuilt into apartments.

The kitchen will become almost defunct because of delivery services. Faucets will offer choice beverages. Single-person apartments will be curated, filtered, and calibrated to their occupant. Home is a sanctuary, or a regenerative cocoon, Popcorn says. It is a safe, private space amid turbulent economic, political, and environmental times. But it’s frequently meant to serve the individual, and cut down human interaction.

“They don’t see it as isolation, because they’re connected,” Popcorn says. A lot of people go home for the weekend and that’s it; they’re tired, she adds, from the grind of everyday life or from the multiple jobs they juggle to afford rent.

“There’s almost no need to go anywhere,” Popcorn says. “Today’s cocoon, I call it a narcissistic environment. It’s still only for you.”

Jacqueline Kantor is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans. She’s written for The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, The Ringer, Vice, Jezebel, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere.



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